ProPublica: How Do They Afford It?

ProPublica is proud to be an independent, non-profit newsroom, but how do they manage to stay afloat?

According to the New York Times, the traditional model of journalism is changing.  Newspaper advertising revenue declines and technology are drastically changing the public’s relationship with news organizations.

In 2009, ad revenue was down 30 percent for some newspapers. The Times says that it is searching for new streams of money and opening itself to new ideas. In the old model, editors decided what news is, assign their own reporters and pay the expenses using ad revenue. Now, with ad revenue down, media outlets like The Times are trying to form a variety of partnerships and arrangements to fund stories.

This is exactly how ProPublica manages to stay in business.

In 2009, ProPublica published 138 news stories with 38 different partners. One of these was actually awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

When ProPublica publishes a story, the story does not just appear on the website.  ProPublica actually offers its stories offered to traditional news organizations, free of charge, for publication or for broadcast.

ProPublica also partners with major news organizations to produce stories. For instance, ProPublica partnered with CBS to do a report on questionable federal stimulus spending on airports. They worked hard to deliver a story free of any political bias.

But it doesn’t end there. ProPublica supports each story that it publishes with an active and aggressive follow up. This includes regularly contacting reporters, editors and bloggers, encouraging them to follow-up on ProPublica’s reporting, and to link to ProPublica’s work.

Interestingly, ProPublica does not just promote it’s own reporters’ stories. The ProPublica website site also features investigative reporting produced by others. ProPublica wants their website to only be a destination, but a tool for promoting good work in the journalism field.

But where is ProPublica getting the funds to do this type of reporting? Obviously, the Sandler Foundation has made a major, multi-year commitment to fund ProPublica. However, they don’t do it alone. ProPublica is trying to build a more sustainable business model and reduce its reliance on the Sandlers. Currently, ProPublica has a large group of supporters and philanthropic contributors such as the MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies.

ProPublica has managed to perfect the art of securing donations. Their stories have to be sufficiently compelling to convince editors and producers to accord them space or time. By consistently delivering compelling stories, donors will be confident that professional standards are being met and maintained, and that important work is being done. Thus, they will be more willing to donate to ProPublica’s cause.

So, is this a model that could be implemented across the board?  Instead of desperately trying to save and adapt the current business model, is it time for a new one altogether?

It’s obvious that news outlets need to change and develop, in terms of what they cover, how they cover it, and how they reach their audience. It’s no secret that the Internet has revolutionized the way people follow the news, and it will undoubtedly continue to play a role in journalism practices. The idea of implementing payment for online news is an option, but has yet to show much success. For now, if newspapers and other media organizations want to function effectively, whether in print or online, they need to be creative in finding new ways to maintain sufficient staff and resources. Thankfully, an organization like ProPublica found a way to provide the American public with quality news stories despite these hard economic times. Let’s hope the rest of the journalism world can follow in its footsteps.

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Meet the Faces of Pro Publica

Some people believe all you need to succeed is an idea and a dream. In ProPublica’s case, all you need is a dream and some friends with a whole lot of money.

In Fall 2006, Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, got a phone call from Herbert and Marion Sandler about a business venture. Steiger said he knew little about the Sandlers, except that they were former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation – one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and savings and loans.

With money to spare, the Sandlers wanted to invest in something big. They told Steiger to come up with a proposal for a nonprofit news organization that focused on investigative journalism. After seeing Steiger’s plan, the Sandlers were instantly sold. They told Steiger that they would finance the organization, but only if he would run it. After some thought, Steiger agreed.

The Sandlers committed a chunk of their personal fortune – $10 million a year to the project to be exact. And so, ProPublica was born.

Photo Credit - ProPublica.com

Today, ProPublica has become one of the few success stories for online journalism. But behind every great success, is a great leader, or in this case a team of great leaders.

ProPublica’s current editor-in-chief, president and chief executive is Paul Steiger, but Steiger is not alone. He has the help of two other experienced media gurus. The first is managing editor Stephen Engelberg – a former managing editor of The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon and former investigative editor for the The New York Times. The second is general manger Richard Tofel – the former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

With a strong backbone, ProPublica came onto the scene in October 2007, commenced operations  in January 2008, and began publishing in June 2008. And thus, an online journalism powerhouse was born. But it’s not just the leaders that make this news outlet what is it, it’s the employees.

Staffed by army of 32 working journalists, all dedicated to investigative reporting on stories with significant impact, ProPublica is taking on the world of investigative journalism by storm.

For an aspiring journalist like myself, ProPublica is the place to be if I want to learn the ropes of professional online journalism. Their staff seems to be an extremely well-versed and experienced group of individuals – people I could definitely learn a lot from. Simply having the opportunity to work with established journalism honchos such as Steiger, Engelberg and Tofel would be like having years of journalism experience at my fingertips.

Steiger, Engelberg, Tofel and other ProPublica staffers have all made their marks in the history of journalism in a variety of mediums. Interestingly, they have also all managed to make a successful the transition from print and other news outlets to the Internet – an impossible task according to some journalists. To me, this says that anything is possible if you are willing to make it happen. Maybe all you really need is an idea and a dream after all.

Out With the Old, In With the New

The old-model of journalism and its supporters are starting to look a lot like Chicken Little crying, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” But, the ‘sky’ is not falling, it is transforming.

In the United States, there is one thing that is certain in the world of journalism – there will be fewer professional journalists working in fewer outlets with fewer resources for reporting. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism 2010 State of the News Media report: “We estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30 percent. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.”

Although newspapers are hurting the worst, there is no good news from any types of news outlet. Both revenue and viewership are way down. The Pew State of the Media Report revealed some interesting, yet scary, statistics. Local television ad revenue fell 24 percent in 2009, radio was down 18 percent, magazine ad pages dropped 19 percent, and network television down 7 percent. Unfortunately, things may only get worse.

It is no secret that journalists are getting hit hard. According to a report by UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., there was a 22 percent increase in the journalism jobs lost from September 2008 through August 2009, compared with a general job loss rate of 8 percent.

So, what does a journalist do in the face of catastrophe? It’s simple – start looking outside the box.

Recently, there have been many groups experimenting with ways to organize and support journalists. Some of these experiments include grant-funded news operations such as Pro Publica, citizen journalism collaborations with professional newsrooms, and other various web projects.

In the rapidly changing world of online media development and technology, journalism is perfectly positioned to use such tools to their advantage. By embracing technology, journalism can stop dwelling on the past and build a newer, more sustainable model for connecting with audiences. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

In an interview with the Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism, Larry Jinks, former editor and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, gives aspiring journalists some hope – “I think the answer may come from places staffed by young people who understand the new technology and its potential and who have a passion for journalism.”

As a young aspiring journalist, I’ll take Larry’s word for it.